The Gospel Isn't Easy
I recently came across an interview with Ken Wilson, senior pastor of the Vineyard Church in Ann Arbor, MI. It seems he’s written a new book, A Letter to My Congregation, about his change of heart on the issue of homosexuality and how he led his congregation to a similar change. Some of you may know that I was once a Vineyard pastor. During that time, I didn’t know Ken personally, but knew of him. I had heard him speak and enjoyed his book Empowered Evangelicals. At the time I left the Vineyard, Ken and his church were very well respected within the movement and his church. (I only speak in the past tense because I’ve been out of the Vineyard for some time now.)
On the matter of homosexuality I hold the same position as the Catholic Church; that a homosexual orientation in itself is not sinful (though it is disordered), and that any sexual act outside of marriage—as defined as between husband and wife—is sinful. To quote the Catechism:
“The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided…Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.” (CCC #2358-2359)
I confess that I have not read Ken’s book. What I’d like to address in this space are some of the attitudes found in comments made in the online interview with Ken and some of the material found in the various Introductions to the book that have been published online. Although well intentioned, Ken and the various other contributors to his book are wrong in their capitulation to societal pressures to change long held Christian moral teaching regarding the acceptance of homosexual activity.
Rather than commenting on specific quotes, I want to address the presuppositions and the moral, philosophical and theological issues at hand in this debate.
You are not what you do. The politics of sexual identity prevalent in our culture today confuses what we do with our bodies with who we are as persons. Regardless of one’s sexual orientation, our identity as a person needs to be clearly understood apart from whether we are sexually active. As Christians, we believe that everyone is uniquely made in the image and likeness of God, though that image and likeness has been damaged by sin. We are all on the journey of being made whole in Christ and that transformation will not be completed in this life. Our dignity—gay, straight, bi, whatever—is rooted in who I am as a child of God. This is why the Catholic Church condemns discrimination against someone merely for their sexual orientation.
Actions have moral consequences. “Good” people can do bad things, and often do. Our choices and actions, including our sexual choices, can be moral or immoral and that morality is determined not only by our intentions but by the nature of the acts themselves. There is a natural order and moral law woven into creation and it is just as real as gravity even if its effects may not be as obvious. Again, as Christians we have also been given God’s divine revelation to enlighten our hearts and minds with a greater understanding of what is or isn’t pleasing to God. This means that Christians ought to be held to a higher moral standard than non-Christians. Hatred towards others, discriminating against minorities, and dehumanizing others are sinful acts because they are contrary to the loving nature of God. Likewise, sexual acts outside of the marital covenant established by God are also sinful as the also violate his commands and are contrary to his Trinitarian familial nature of self-emptying, life-giving love.
The moral confusion among modern Christians isn’t surprising. I am not shocked that more and more Christians and denominations continue to show confusion and shifting attitudes about a variety of sexual moral issues today. I’m not saying Bob & Sally Catholic are exempt from this moral confusion. Recent polls show most average Catholics are no different in morality than their non-Catholic neighbors, but at least the Church has and remains consistent in its teaching. She may be ignored or have poorly catechized her flock, but the Catholic Church has remained constant while others have been willing to alter their doctrinal and pastoral beliefs to accommodate shifting attitudes in the culture. It all goes back to the 1930 Lambeth Conference when the Anglican Church became the first Christian denomination in history to allow contraception. Like a leak in a dam, once the sludge of sexual immorality found a crack it did not hesitate to pour in like a flood. First denominations looked the other way or justified allowing for contraception, then cohabitation, then divorce, and now active LGBT lifestyles. Pastor Wilson admits as much in his interview when he said, “Well, for me, I asked myself: Why am I willing to make so much space in the church for people who are remarried after divorce—despite the Bible’s very strict teaching against that—and I’m not willing to make space for gay and lesbian people?”
Mary Eberstadt speaks of this loss of moral authority in her great book, Adam and Eve After the Pill, saying:
“By giving benediction in 1930 to its married heterosexual members purposely seeking sterile sex, the Anglican church lost, bit by bit, any authority to tell its other members—married or unmarried, heterosexual or homosexual—not to do the same. To put the point another way, once heterosexuals starting claiming the rights to act as homosexuals, it would not be long before homosexuals started claiming the rights of heterosexuals…Thus in a bizarre but real sense did Lambeth's attempt to show compassion to married heterosexuals inadvertently give rise to the modern gay rights movement."
There is a legitimate pastoral need for the Church to minister to individuals with non-heterosexual orientations struggling to follow God and live holy lives. We do them; and heterosexual singles; and divorced and remarried couples; and husbands and wives using artificial contraception; and individuals addicted to pornography a great disservice to not call attention to sinful behavior while affirming their dignity as sons and daughters of God. One of the great messages of Vatican II for Catholics was the Church’s call and reminder that all of us are called to holiness. This means we can’t sugarcoat, ignore or even encourage sin. The doctor who withholds giving a life-threatening diagnosis to his patient for fear of upsetting the patient is not a good doctor, he’s guilty of malpractice.
Ken Wilson and others like him are truly motivated by pastoral concerns; they are also worried about losing the next generation of church members for sounding anachronistic. Ken even points out in the interview that, “Christianity is losing followers in America because of this.” Jesus never worried about the size of the crowd following him. When the rich young ruler turned away at the challenge of giving up his possessions Jesus didn’t lessen the requirement to get the man to come back. When the crowds left him after the Bread of Life discourse he didn’t tone down his message to win them back. When the villagers begged Jesus to go away after driving demons from a man and into a herd of pigs Jesus got in his boat and left. Jesus preached the gospel, invited people to follow him, told them that obedience to him was required and allowed people to leave if they didn't want to commit to that.
The Gospel is an invitation to a new way of life. It carries demands. For too long the Evangelical American gospel has been “Come to Jesus and he’ll make you happy.” That’s not the gospel that Jesus preached. That’s not the message in the Gospel reading from today’s mass, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?” Indeed, what does it profit a man or woman or a church to justify sinful sexual behavior and lose themselves?
I’ll close with a quote from Venerable Fulton J. Sheen, “Most people today want a religion which suits the way they live, rather than one which makes demands upon them. Religion thus becomes a luxury like an opera, not a responsibility like life.”