Why the Third Way Remains So Important.
This has been a week of Third-Way-dom for me.
I was interviewed about my book by Religion News Service. Their interviewer is on their atheism beat—I wonder what that says about me!—and what she wanted to talk most about were Solus Jesus and the Third Way (along with the general state of “being controversial”). And then I got solicited to write a response to the odious “Nashville Statement” for—I’ll euphemize here—“a major newspaper” (by the time you read this, we’ll likely know whether it’s run or not). And what was the unique perspective I might be able to bring to bear? A view from the Third Way.
Now this all might be old news. Ken Wilson crafted the Third Way as he was trying to help an evangelical congregation become LGBTQ inclusive. No Blue Ocean church is in that situation now, each being entirely inclusive of LGBTQ people at all levels. So maybe the power of keeping people with opposing religious views at the table is no longer so pressing.
But after a week of Third-Way-all-the-time, I’m all in on it. It’s a big deal.
Let’s do a review. The Third Way helps churches and Christians to make their way through sharp controversies—as, for instance, the question of LGBTQ inclusion has been in many church settings. In Romans 14, Paul describes a way of pulling that off in the middle of two massive controversies of his day: whether believers can eat Roman meat, which was sacrificed to idols as it was butchered; and how to think about “special days” like, for instance, the Sabbath day, a central marker of faith in the Hebrew Bible. In each instance conservative believers, pointing to what struck them as an overwhelming testimony in Scripture and the historic practice of Israelite faith, said this wasn’t a controversy at all. Believers needed to avoid being corrupted by surrounding pagan nations (so they couldn’t eat Roman meat) and clearly needed to keep the Sabbath day in the ways that had been taught for so long. The big value they were focused on was being pure, being uncorrupted. No further discussion was necessary.
Paul, however, was inviting an entirely new group of people to follow Jesus in service to the central Hebrew Bible command to believers to be “a light to all nations.” The new believers had no allegiance to vegetarianism for what struck them as obscure, cultural reasons. And the focus on special days was also mystifying to them. To the conservatives, these newcomers were welcome to join them in following the God of Israel so long as they understood that they were joining a club which already had a set of membership requirements, whether those requirements made sense to them or not. Paul was the one making the radical claim that Jesus wasn’t a tribal god, but was the God of the entire world, a claim that would press the issue on these “membership requirements.”
But Paul understood that he was not asking a simple thing from these conservative believers! He was the one who was pressing into the faith in a way that he understood had always been present and central (again, being a light to the nations) but which had been to that point ignored. He was confident in his perspective, but understood that a time of controversy was unavoidable. The issue was how to make it through that controversy.
His way forward required each side to think the best of the other. Without abandoning one’s view on the matter, conservatives had to refrain from demanding that progressives not eat meat in their own homes and progressives had to treat conservatives with respect and not contempt. As the controversy worked itself out, neither side could exclude the other from full participation in the community.
In brief, that’s the Third Way. Here are a few totally subjective observations about how it’s worked out in Blue Ocean congregations.
• It absolutely disfavored many conservative believers—as did Paul’s scandalous perspective at the time. Conservatism, again, often focuses on its understanding of purity. If something seems impure, it needs to be rejected. And if clearly impure people won’t listen to reason, they need to be excluded. So every Blue Ocean, Third Way congregation saw many conservative believers leave. The charge they left with was one also thrown at Paul and Jesus by their opponents—that there was no possibility of a “Third Way,” there was either obeying the “clear” rules or disobeying them. In the case of LGBTQ inclusion, the charge was that this wasn’t a Third Way at all, but was the existing, liberal way of being “open and affirming.” The Third Way response was that God does not require us to “affirm” anyone else—indeed, that would be prohibited by anyone but God, as it would require judging them. Instead, the Bible requires us to accept one another, a very different thing.
• As social provocations come fast and furious under this new presidential administration, most Blue Ocean congregations feel a need for a steady stream of unambiguous responses on behalf of marginalized people. To not condemn bigotry or aggressive harm is seen both as ungodly but also as a product of white or straight privilege. (And can we just take a moment to consider how utterly crazy the pace of these provocations is? I mean, this Nashville Statement that I was asked to write on came out late last week! And yet have you given it one moment’s thought in the last couple of days? Even remembered that it existed? Of course not! Because the president has since revoked DACA and that’s taken up all of your attention! And some new outrage will no doubt have happened before I can get this online. Is this crazy?!) So there can be a tension with what it looks like to keep people with differing perspectives at the table, which raises again the question of Third Way’s ultimate usefulness. In the end, are there conservative congregations and liberal congregations and one kind (depending on your perspective) is good and the other is bad and that’s just the way it is? Do people just need to pick which of the two they’re most comfortable with? Yet, as I said, I’m more on board this week with the Third Way than ever. Here’s why.
• The Third Way provides a unique kind of hope that a lot of people crave and can’t find anywhere else.
The other day my publicist passed on that one nonchurchgoing interviewer said that, were she ever go to a church, she’d want to go to mine. I think the Third Way was a good part of why.
As we’ll talk about in a moment, Paul understood this when he proposed it in the first place. This goes to the heart of Jesus being the God of the whole world rather than a tribal god. Until after the resurrection, this was only a theoretical idea. In practice there were only tribal gods and everyone wanted theirs to give them more power and prosperity and moral superiority in the world’s zero sum game. And that’s the way our world feels now most of the time. We know what we believe and we know it’s hotly contested by what feels like an overwhelming number of evidently bad people out there and so we can feel besieged.
But we dream of a different kind of world. We dream that increasingly we can move forward together even with people with whom we have differences—like, in just one example, family members. How on earth, we inwardly ask ourselves, would it be possible for me to not compromise on what I actually believe and yet still stay in relationship with a wider swath of the world than I do?
Paul didn’t demonize his opponents in Romans 14. To be sure, he got feisty quite a bit in his letters. He got angry. He loudly argued for his perspective against his enemies. To be sure. And yet he never backed down that he wasn’t just arguing that his niche view was right. He was trying to lead as many people as would go with him into genuine fellowship with Jesus, who was not just his God, but his enemies’s God as well if they’d just stick with him.
For many people, this addresses a deeply held dream. That’s worth keeping in mind.
• In an ideal world, it actually is helpful to have close relationship with people who think differently.
Now okay, this is getting harder each day. With our current political and religious polarization, we might be in for a rough ride on this one for some time. But I remember not long ago when I felt that—say, politically—both conservatives and liberals had important things to offer. Both personal responsibility and social responsibility bring real value. I’ve often been angry at America’s political leadership and I’ve often felt my side of things was under attack. But nonetheless to my mind there’s been clear value in the dialogue and in the sense that we are all fighting for our mutual country.
It wasn’t that long ago that I felt that way in churches as well. I liked feeling that—even with differing spiritual, cultural and political perspectives—we had a common good in mind, experiencing the living Jesus and offering him to others across race and class and sexual orientation lines even as we were good neighbors. I have happy memories of a long series of informative and encouraging get-togethers with a political power broker from the other party than my own.
So, yes, those memories seem a little distant. But I do like the ideal. I think that’s also a reason I’m hearing for the yearning for the Third Way this week.
• It offers believers an opportunity to help lead Christendom rather than silo themselves off.
Blue Ocean Faith can perhaps feel a little lonely. Most of us at one point were on the progressive wing of evangelicalism which, yes, usually felt like an unhappy place to be, but did at least provide a church-world family of sorts. Leaving this kind of family doesn’t necessarily land one in some other family. The mainline, for one, has its own sets of traditions and reasons for existing that have built up over generations. If we regard ourselves primarily as crusaders for our take on the world, then we’re mostly trying to carve out a very small amount of real estate for ourselves in the religious world.
But we’re not trying to do that! We’re Third Way!
And so suddenly things get a lot cheerier.
Whatever our so-called “tribe” or lack thereof, we’re Christians! There are a whole lot of those in the world! Being, along with Paul, Third Way believers, we resolutely stay inclusive as we move forward and so can absolutely welcome anyone who wants to travel with us to hop on board. So long as they’ll play by Paul’s Third Way rules, we’re good!
This is a lot more fun.
• It offers the opportunity to believe and act on what we actually believe and yet still stay in broad-based relationship.
This is a variant on what’s already been said, but think about that titan of the Third Way, Martin Luther King. You could make a case that a key element of his genius was his novel understanding of this. He, of course, absolutely prosecuted the public case that he believed in. Despite frequent calls from white moderates to go slower in the reforms he was calling for, he refused and pressed on. From what we can tell, he was transparent and candid in what he said and called for.
But while resolutely pointing out the injustices he experienced and heard about, he kept an entirely open hand towards his opponents and invited anyone of any race friendly to his cause to join him. He envisioned a future with, not over and against, his opponents.
Most people I know have never dreamed that acting on what’s important to us won’t cut us off from most of the (opposing) world. Is that really possible?
So, yes, the original need that Blue Ocean churches had for the Third Way has abated. How to keep conservative evangelicals at the table as our congregations figure out whether LGBTQ congregants can fully participate is no longer an open question.
But this just highlights how the Third Way was never a tactical approach to one challenge. Paul knew it was and would continue to be the way forward for Jesus’ people.