Sex and the Pastor Theologian: a book review

Todd Wilson and Gerald Hiestand are both pastors at Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, Illinois (Wilson is the senior pastor). They wrote a book together called The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision(Zondervan, 2015). They bemoaned the division of disciplines between academic theology and pastoral ministry and urged a recovery  “pastor theologians” that were deeply engaged in theology and ecclesial concerns.

8988So, Wilson and Hiestand launched the Center for Pastoral Theologians, and the annual Center for Pastor Theologians conference. Their 2016 conference was on human sexuality. Hiestand and Wilson have edited and published their conference as Beauty, Order, and Mystery: A Christian Vision of Human Sexuality (IVP Academic, 2017). The conference and book are timely when you consider the way sexuality continues to dominate the news cycle and our cultural milieu.

Contributors to the conference included Beth Felker Jones, Wesley Hill, Richard Mouw, Daniel J Brendsel, Matthew Levering, Matthew Mason, Matthew Milliner, Matt O’Reilly , Amy Peeler, Jeremy Treats, Denny Burk, and Joel Willitts (and Wilson and Hiestand). The topics covered range from church history, contemporary culture, transgenderism and gender dysphoria, homosexuality, pornography, abuse and sexual brokenness, marriage, embodiment, selfies, and gender.

Theses essays are organized under three headings:  Part 1: A Theological Vision for Sexuality (chapters 1-5); Part 2: the Beauty and Brokenness of Sexuality (chapters 6-10); Part 3: Biblical and Historical Reflections on Gender and Sexuality (chapters 11-14). 

In their introduction, Hiestand and Wilson state, “The essays are diverse, as was our intention. Not all the contributors would agree on every issue in debates over human sexuality or sexual ethics. But this group would all share a belief in the historic Christian consensus on sexuality” (3).  This means, not just that contributors say ‘the Bible says it, I believe it, so that settles it’ but that each of the contributors seeks to engage and locate their position on sexuality within the historic Christian tradition. Wilson writes:

Far too many good Bible-believers are committed to Scripture but skeptical of tradition. As a result they operate with a bastardized view of the classic Protestant doctrine of Scripture—not sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”) but nuda Scriptura (“Scripture in Isolation”). But this emaciated approach can’t stand its ground in the face of the twin challenges of pervasive pluralism on the one hand, and the widespread refashioning of moral intuitions on the other. (17)

Wilson (and his co-contributors), by anchoring themselves in both Bible and tradition, they argue for a recovery of a robust theological vision of “mere sexuality,” to help avert a ‘culturally construed’ neo-Pagan drift within Evangelicalism (18). So while the contributors are not the same, they also aren’t that different. Indeed, of the 14 contributors, all are cis-gender, all but Brendsel are white, all but Wesley Hill identify as heterosexual,  Jones and Peeler are the only females, Levering is the only non-evangelical, and four contributors are named Matthew. All of them hold a conservative position on marriage equality, though (as far as I can tell) Denny Burk was the only one who signed the Nashville Statement.

Pastorally though, there is some real gold here. Hill reflects on his experience as a gay celibate Christian and what it means for him and other gay Christians to give and receive love (chapter 3). Willitts describes the journey of healing from past sexual abuse (chapter 9). Mouw, speaks generously and with uncommon decency to pastoral concerns (chapter 5). Jones’ essay on embodiment also stands out as an important, affirmation of female and male bodies (chapter 2). Milliner’s essay on the icons of Sergius and Bacchus and the critical assessment of John’s Boswell’s Same Sex Unions in Pre Modern Europe was fascinating (chapter 13). On the whole these essays, and others in this volume demonstrate a real sensitivity to sexual brokenness and the wounds people carry. I don’t agree with every or all positions articulated here, but I appreciate that there is a real desire from these pastor-theologians to lead out of compassion.

Pastors and theologians are not typically sought after as experts on sex. However there is a lot of food for thought here about how to live faithfully to the Christian tradition while navigating  our culture (where sex is often disordered, commercialized, commodified and untethered from maritial faithfulness). I appreciate the ways these theologians have attempted to wrestle with issues that is both faithful to the Tradition and pastorally sensitive. I give this three stars.

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review

[Edit: a previous version of this review suggested that the contributors regarded any theological development as a slide toward neo-paganism and has been re-phrased to be  more accurate and charitable to their position].

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matichuk

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