We have finally arrived to the area of Ken Wilson’s book, A Letter to My Congregation, that many of you have been patiently waiting for… Ken’s biblical arguments! How does Ken treat the Bible’s statements regarding homosexuality? How does he understand Scriptures voice on the issue? What sources within the scholarly realm has he used to help him discern answers to these huge questions we are all wrestling with?
Ken’s point in this chapter, and the section we’ll be looking at, is to lay out the importance of understanding the historical context. He then provides a very brief look at two texts in the Old Testament (Lev. 18:22 and 20:13). Ken’s purpose is to show that there is good scholarly reason to understand that these two texts have no bearing on whether or not homosexuality within the context of a committed monogamous relationship is sinful. Thus, as he notes, he only interacts with sources that are in opposition to the “traditional” reading because those arguments have “been done exhaustively elsewhere.”
In this review, I intend to show where I agree with Ken and then push back on why I think he should have consulted some other scholarly works that are widely available. Furthermore, I think his methodology in relation to covering the Old Testament in essentially one page is a bit problematic in that there isn’t much critical reflection. Therefore, in this longer post (and I do agree that it’s long… but I’m being thorough in order to demonstrate that the hard work can be done by pastors), I will interact with several of the ideas that he seems to assume. This review will outline as follows:
- Ken’s Scripture & Hermeneutical Priorities
- Preliminary Comments on Ken’s Understanding of Homosexuality
- Ken’s Treatment of the Leviticus Abomination Texts
So let’s get to it…
Ken’s Scripture & Hermeneutical Priorities
Ken begins his third chapter, “A Closer Look at the Prohibitive Texts” by stating his assumption regarding Scripture by pointing to 2 Tim. 3:16. After stating that he’s a follower of Jesus and that Jesus’ book (the Bible) is his book, Ken states: “Jesus also had a way of reading Scripture that was surprising, unconventional, and paradoxical.” This openness to allowing Scripture to speak on God’s terms, an openness I too encourage and share, led Ken to devote time to studying the “prohibitive” texts with more depth. Prior to this study, in relation to these texts, Ken “knew they condemned same-sex acts without exception” but that “now it was time to study these texts carefully, in light of [his] growing experience as a pastor.”
I really appreciate that Ken suggests that followers of Jesus must be open to the ways that God speaks, even if his ways are “surprising, unconventional, and paradoxical.” Like Ken, I have been attracted to the Vineyard movement (and other traditions) for the same reason and have recently become even more interested in how the Spirit participates in our interpretation and application of Scripture.
According to Ken, his work is based on serious academic work. In his own words:
“I did extensive study to understand the historical context of Leviticus and the Pauline letters . This is important work because the meaning of any given text is rooted in its original historical context.”
In previous reviews, and in discussions on social media, I have been accused of holding Ken to an academic standard that is unreasonable. I want to, once again, point out that Ken first delivered his study at an academic conference where I first heard his presentation (the Society of Vineyard Scholars’ annual meeting in 2013) and has stated he did an extensive study to better understand these texts. So I’m not sure it’s fair to not evaluate Ken’s work according to the standards that he himself has set. Plus, people in his own congregation refers to him as a scholar and I have certainly found his previous works (which I have thoroughly enjoyed) to be evidence that Ken’s extremely intelligent and capable of doing scholarly work.
In fact, Ken’s approach to Scripture and how he determines how it is understood (and applied) in ALTMC employs a historical-grammatical hermeneutical approach, which is a standard approach within Evangelicalism. Words can’t express how much I appreciate reading that “understanding the historical context is essential in order to draw reasonable conclusions from words composed in vastly different settings than our own.” Yes! Historical context matters! As Ken notes:
“Works are being discovered that shed new light, better translations of those works are being developed, and all this new information is making its way from the academic settings that specialize in such things, to the biblical scholars who depend on this information to do their work. This work of biblical scholarship takes even more time to inform pastors and others who try to keep up with this stuff because they have the time and inclination to do so. No wonder so many people are checking their assumptions about what various Scripture texts actually mean in light of new information available about the historical context in which they were written.”
Yes, it’s a great thing to have historical work being done, which helps biblical scholars and theologians do their work. Readers should note that Ken is not anti-intellectual or opposed to good scholarship. On the contrary, Ken states in ALTMC that he wants to utilize good scholarship to help us understand the historical context of texts as we do our homework before making decisions on praxis.
With this in mind, I’d like to respond to some of Ken’s ideas and the use of certain sources (or lack thereof) because in several significant ways he fails to either convince in how he reads and/or understands the biblical texts. However, before commenting on his treatment of the Old Testament, I’d like to make a couple preliminary comments in relation to his remarks on homosexuality.
Preliminary Comments on Ken’s Understanding of Homosexuality
Ken states that the way in which the ancient world understood “homosexuality” is quite different than how we understand it in today’s culture. He writes that though it can’t be said that “people were necessarily unaware of those who were sexually attracted to members of the same gender,” their understanding “wasn’t treated with nearly the recognition, significance, or understanding that we have today” and this “means that people thought differently about what two men having sex meant.” Ken goes on to write that because “men in the period in which the Pauline texts were written viewed male beauty as the higher and more aesthetically pleasing form of human beauty,” homosexual sex “was viewed as a sign of his strength, and strength was viewed as a form of male virtue” and that “male penetration, often violent and having no association with love, was celebrated in society as a display of masculine strength” (emphasis mine).
I’ll comment more on these assumptions since they have a lot to do with Ken’s treatment of the Pauline texts, but a couple comments are in order:
(1) When Ken states that the ancient world’s recognition of homosexuality isn’t the same as ours today, he makes a significant error. Bernadette J. Brooten, K. J. Dover, and Craig A. Williams have all provided significant scholarly treatments that would certainly challenge this assertion. The simple fact of the matter is that the ancient world was not nearly as monolithic as Ken implies. In fact, Rabun Taylor has argued in his essay, “Two Pathic Subcultures,” that there existed in in Rome a “homosexual subculture” where “men… found primary fulfillment in same-sex unions that at times involved the assumption of the passive role.”
Furthermore, Loader notes a significant change in Dover’s updated Greek Homosexuality:
“In his revised edition Dover presents evidence however to show that Greek homosexuality in both the classical and Hellenistic era consisted of more than pederasty, that it was not always seen as exploitive, and that same-sex relations could include lifelong consensual adult partnerships.” (The New Testament on Sexuality, 324, emphasis mine; Loader is referencing to changes made by Dover on pp. 204-205)
(2) Ken’s “extensive study” simply hasn’t taken into consideration of the academic works of these scholars. While these scholars are still hard at work interacting with both the ancient literature and their own respective works, there is ample evidence to suggest that Ken’s assumptions (and many others regarding the ancient world’s view of homosexuality) is still in need of refinement and development. And I say that as a student of this subject. As I’ve been reading through the massive amount of literature that is available on the subject, in both books and journal articles, I’ve become increasingly aware of the fact that the ancient world’s understanding of people and their identities were just as complex then as they are today. So let’s do justice to the historical evidence that Ken speaks highly of by doing as much “extensive study” as we can… and when we find out there’s more, let’s read that literature and critically evaluate it.
(3) Ken actually writes that “comparatively little is known about the extent or practice of lesbian sex during [the times of the Bible].” This is simply not true. Quite a bit is known. For anyone — including Ken — interested in learning more about the subject, please consult Brooten’s Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism; Brooten is not an Evangelical and does not an advocate the traditional Christian understanding on the issue, but her work provides significant research on the subject of lesbian sex; in addition to Brooten and Dover, Homosexuality in Greece and Rome, ed. by Thomas K. Hubbard, is also helpful.
I’ll provide further evidence from these scholars and their academic work later. Let’s move onto Ken’s treatment of the Old Testament…
Ken’s Treatment of the Leviticus Abomination Texts
There are two primary prohibitive texts in the OT that Ken addresses outright:
“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (Leviticus 18:22 ESV)
“If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.” (Leviticus 20:13 ESV)
Ken is correct to note that these two texts are found in the Holiness Code of the Levitical Law. One small point I think is relevant, in addition to acknowledging the texts place in the Holiness Code, is to note that the passages in Leviticus 18 and 20 follow casuistic models of law that were common to the Ancient Near East (ANE). Lev. 18 follows the apodictic model that is similar to the Decalogue (10 Commandments) and Lev. 20 the traditional casuistic law (protasis and apodosis). See, I learned something in seminary. Contextually this means that the penalty for breaking the Law found in Leviticus 18:22 isn’t stated until verse 29:
“For everyone who does any of these abominations, the persons who do them shall be cut off from among their people. So keep my charge never to practice any of these abominable customs that were practiced before you, and never to make yourselves unclean by them: I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 18:29-30 ESV)
At any rate, Ken‘s first oversight, I think, is to suggest that “Leviticus has nothing to say about lesbian sex.” On the contrary, I think Richard Davidson convincingly argues otherwise:
“Although this proscription explicitly mentions only sodomy (male homosexual relations), the prohibition of lesbian relationships is probably implicit in the general Levitical injunction against following the abominable practices of the Egyptians or the Canaanites, as recognized in rabbinic interpretation. All the legislation in Lev 18 is in the masculine gender (with the exception of female bestiality, v. 23). The Mosaic legislation in general is considered from a man’s (male’s) perspective. Even the Decalogue is addressed in the masculine singular, but this certainly does not mean that it applies only to the male gender. The masculine singular is the Hebrew way to express gender-inclusive ideas, much the same as it was in English until the recent emphasis on gender-inclusive language. Since the male is regarded as the patriarchal representative of the family, laws are given as if to him (see, e.g., the tenth commandment of the Decalogue) but are clearly intended for both man and woman where applicable.” (Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament, 150)
Therefore, Leviticus may have “nothing” to say about lesbian sex in relation to actually including the words “lesbian sex,” the passage and its surrounding context in regards to sexual ethics does appear to apply to both men and women, young and old.
However, this is not the most problematic mistake. Ken goes on to state that Robert Gagnon understands Leviticus 18 as being “produced with homosexual cult prostitution in view, given the context of the Canaanite and Egyptian idolatry. In the corresponding footnote, Ken quotes Gagnon as writing:
“I do not doubt that the circles out of which Leviticus 18 :22 was produced had in view homosexual cult prostitution, at least partly. Homosexual cult prostitution appears to have been the primary form in which homosexual intercourse was practiced in Israel.” (The Bible and Homosexuality, 130).
This is the same mistake that other authors have made and which Gagnon himself has actually addressed (here and here). While I’m not in agreement with all of Gagnon’s ideas in relation to church praxis and interaction, his statement in regards to Leviticus is not being represented fairly in Ken’s use of it. In fact, Gagnon states in the immediate context of the quote provided by Ken (which appears to have been lifted from Justin Lee’s Torn), that “male cult prostitution was not the only context in which homosexual intercourse manifested itself in the ancient Near East generally” and that since the author of Leviticus didn’t limit the laws application, “they had a broader application in mind” and that “the Levitical rejection of same-sex intercourse depends on Canaanite practices for its validity about as much as the rejection of incest, adultery, and bestiality.” Gordon Wenham confirms this by stating:
“The exact terminology of these laws deserves note. Lev 18:22 states: ‘You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination’. This obviously prohibits the active type of homosexuality that was quite respectable in the ancient world. It should also be noted that the passive partner is just described as ‘male’, rather than ‘man’ or ‘youth’. Clearly this very general term prohibits every kind of male-male intercourse not just pederasty which for example the Egyptians seem to have condemned. Finally, the practice is condemned as an ‘abomination’, one of the strongest condemnatory words in the Old Testament, for offences deemed specially heinous in God’s sight.” (source, emphasis mine)
The reason that Gagnon and Wenham are so stridently opposed to suggesting that Leviticus is simply related to a certain type of homosexual activity is because Leviticus 18:22 uses zākār (male), a very specific Hebrew word. Donald Wold explains why this matters by writing:
“… the legislator could have expanded upon this term to prohibit sexual intercourse between specific categories of males (e.g., between boys, between adult males and old men), since Hebrew words exist for these various categories of individuals within the male species. But it would have been unnecessary because the term zākār in Leviticus 18:22 excludes all male sexual relations.” (Out of Order, 104; Wold also makes a great case as to why homosexuality is out of order with God’s principles of creation, 130).
For these reasons, Ken’s suggestion that the Levitical texts have more to do with “male temple prostitution” is simply unconvincing.
In Ken’s one page treatment of Leviticus, he raises a valid question concerning the complexity related to how we interpret (and apply) the Old Testament Law. As he notes, there is a challenge in how we interpret what is often called the “Moral” law and the “Ritual” law (theologians often break up the Law as moral, ceremonial, and civil). Raising this concern, Ken writes:
“While Leviticus 18 uses the term “abomination” to refer to a man lying with another man, the Hebrew term, toevah, translated “abomination” or “detestable,” is used to describe foods that may not be eaten (see Deuteronomy/ Devarim 14: 3, Orthodox Jewish Bible). In English , “abomination” implies severe condemnation reserved for the most egregious forms of immorality; this doesn’t seem to be consistent with the dietary uses of toevah. The attempt to resolve this by categorizing one as a matter of moral concern and the other as a matter of ritual purity is not easy to establish on the basis of textual evidence.”
I must say that this question is surprising though. A basic rule of hermeneutics is to interpret texts in their immediate context. The way in which words are used by different authors or in different contexts are not always the same. Context should most often determine meaning, right? We must study words first in their immediate context and then in the context of the author’s work… working out essentially from the bark on the trees to seeing the whole forest, going micro to macro. So I’m not sure that the grammatical observation is as problematic as Ken thinks.
However, when Ken states that this matter is “not easy to establish on the basis of textual evidence,” the footnote points us to Richard Hays. Readers familiar with Hays’ work will likely recognize that his position is at odds with Ken’s. In fact, Hays answers Ken’s question by writing:
“The Old Testament, however, makes no systematic distinction between ritual law and moral law. The same section of the holiness code also contains, for instance, the prohibition of incest (Lev. 18: 6–18). Is that a purity law or a moral law? Leviticus makes no distinction in principle. In each case, the church is faced with the task of discerning whether Israel’s traditional norms remain in force for the new community of Jesus’ followers. In order to see what decisions the early church made about this matter, we must turn to the New Testament.” (A Moral Vision of the New Testament, 382)
True, the OT does not tell Christians which parts of the Law still apply today in a clearly stated biblical text. And we are not given a list in the OT of what is “ritual” and what is “moral.” And Further, I’m increasingly convinced by the growing number of biblical scholars that the way in which Christians have broken up the OT Law is a bit misguided.
But I think Hays’ solution to the dilemma regarding how we determine what falls into those traditional categories is spot on: we must turn to the New Testament.
In the next review, we’ll do just that…
For first time readers, I’ve also written an introductory review (part 1) as well as part 2 and part 3. The introduction might give you the broad view strengths and weaknesses of Ken’s book. As a reminder, I don’t assume that these reviews will likely convert those who are “open and affirming” but I do hope to provide what I think are reasonable and somewhat scholarly responses to ALTMC. For those of us in the Vineyard, I believe there are numerous reasons as to why we should take Ken’s advice and develop better ways forward in addition to acknowledging that his binaries are far to simplistic (as well as misrepresentative). Furthermore, we must work hard to take seriously the transformative work of the Spirit in our own lives and in the lives of those whom the Lord is calling to himself. The church *must* improve how it both thinks on this subject and engages/loves the LGBTQ community!
 Davidson refers readers to Louis M. Epstein, Sex Laws and Customs in Judaism as evidence for the rabbinic basis for condemning lesbianism.
 Here is Gagnon in context:
“There is also an inconsistency in the application of 18: 21 on the part of those who use it to limit 18: 22 to cultic contexts. Those who contend that the broadly worded proscription against same-sex intercourse should be confined to cultic prostitution do not contend that the narrowly worded proscription of child sacrifice to Molech 205 had no implications for other forms of child sacrifice. It is not likely that 18: 21 was formulated as narrowly as it was in order to leave the door open for child sacrifice to other pagan gods besides Molech, or even to Yahweh. Clearly the authors and framers had in mind all kinds of child sacrifice— indeed, infanticide of any sort. By what rationale, then, is a narrow proscription to be taken broadly but a broad proscription only narrowly?
I do not doubt that the circles out of which Lev 18: 22 was produced had in view homosexual cult prostitution, at least partly. Homosexual cult prostitution appears to have been the primary form in which homosexual intercourse was practiced in Israel. However, male cult prostitution was not the only context in which homosexual intercourse manifested itself in the ancient Near East generally. It was merely the most acceptable context for homosexual intercourse to be practiced in Mesopotamia, certainly for those who played the role of the receptive partner. In our own cultural context we think that the banning of male cult prostitution does not take into account consensual, non-cultic, loving homosexual relationships. In the cultural context of the ancient Near East the reasoning has to be reversed: to ban homosexual cult prostitutes was to ban all homosexual intercourse. In any case, the authors of Lev 18: 22 could have formulated the law more precisely by making specific reference to the q dešîm (as in Deut 23: 17-18), if it had been their intent to limit the law’s application. That they did not do so suggests that they had a broader application in mind. Moreover, the Levitical rejection of same-sex intercourse depends on Canaanite practices for its validity about as much as the rejection of incest, adultery, and bestiality.” (emphasis mine)