Is there a “third way” regarding same-sex marriage and the churches?

Ted Grimsrud—August 4, 2014

There seems to be something inherently attractive in the midst of intense controversies about the hope to find ways for people to “just get along.” So when we have all the stresses that we have had concerning Christianity and the inclusion (or not) of those in intimate same-sex relationships, it’s not surprising that the idea of a “third way” that could lead to resolution and keep as many people as possible in fellowship would be pretty attractive.

However, as a person who is not always uncomfortable with taking a partisan position (including on this issue) and who has become used to being the recipient of others’ anger due to that position, I have not found the notion of a “third way” particularly attractive. I often think of the statement from Texan humorist and political activist Jim Hightower: “The only things in the middle of the road in Texas are yellow lines and dead armadillos.”

What does “third way” refer to?

Based on my experience over the past thirty years, I find it difficult to envision a genuine “third way” that would result in Christians all getting along with each other concerning inclusion. The issues at stake simply have not lent themselves to compromise, “agreeing to disagree,” or “agreeing and disagreeing in love.” This is too bad, of course, even scandalous. It’s certainly a black mark on Christianity. But, still, it does seem that in practice we do have mostly an either/or issue—especially when we focus on the marriage question.

In the past several years in the United States, probably just about everyone has been shocked with the sea change that has occurred regarding the legalization of same-sex marriage and the broader acceptance of sexual diversity. The momentum is such that it is hard to imagine that the movement toward inclusion will ever be reversed. It does seem possible that the U.S. Supreme Court could issue a ruling that would slow the momentum some, at least for awhile. However, such a slowing most likely would only be temporary.

There are still strong pockets of resistance, though. Sadly, they are mostly linked with Christianity. A few denominations have been inclusive for many years. Mainline Protestant groups such as the largest Lutheran and Presbyterian denominations have more recently made decisive moves in an inclusive direction, with the Methodists one of the last holdouts. But most evangelical groups and the Roman Catholic hierarchy have shown little sign of being open to change in the near future.

In all Christian groups, though, the movement toward inclusion has met with great resistance. We can count on living through many more years of debate, hostility, and conflict. Hence, the attractiveness of trying to find a “third way” that would recognize the reluctance to change by many and help prevent Christian groups from simply flying apart. However, I’m convinced that such a resolution is not likely.

Part of the problem is the inability so far to actually identify a perspective that provides a genuine third way. And it is difficult to imagine such a perspective being forthcoming. In the current discussion this difficulty is seen in how we have two quite distinct uses of “third way,” one that tends toward the restrictive approach, the other that tends toward the inclusive approach.

The “restrictive” third way

One proposal for a “third way” may be found in writings by a couple of Anabaptists. Bruxy Cavey, pastor of a large non-traditional Brethren in Christ congregation in Canada, The Meeting House, wrote on the congregation’s website a piece called “Same-Sex Marriage: A ‘Third Way’ Approach” (Bruxy Cavey essay). He sets the approach he proposes between the “conservative” approach that highlights biblical texts that condemn homosexual behavior and singles out gays for special antipathy and the “liberal” approach that fails to wrestle with the Bible “in a straightforward manner” and to challenge Christians to rigorous faithfulness.

Hence, the “third way” is to combine the biblical rigor of the conservatives and the welcoming embrace of the liberals. That is, be very nice toward and welcoming of gays, do not teach that people must change their sexual orientation, and do not make a strong public point of speaking against “homosexuality”—but also teach that the Bible requires Christians to oppose same-sex marriage. Learn the difference between acceptance (where gay people are treated with kindness and welcomed to worship) and agreement (where their intimate relationships are affirmed as morally equivalent to straight people’s marriages). Ultimately, marriage is established by God as exclusively for heterosexuals.

David Flowers is a Mennonite convert who pastors a congregation in Virginia. In his blog post, “Addressing Homosexuality: A Third Way” (David Flowers blog), he positions his proposal between “fundamentalists” and “progressives” who both have “abused, misused, and distorted the consistent biblical message of human relationships and homosexuality, [and are] making it impossible to reach a peaceful resolve.”

In an extended comment on Zach Hoag’s blog (where Hoag argues for an “inclusive third way,” link below), Flowers asserts that “the ‘third way’ can only be to welcome but not affirm, like we should with every sinful person and behavior among us….It is not necessary to support LGBT’s quest in order to show them love and welcome them into the church.”

So, in the end, this “third way” is agreeing with the “first way” of the rejection of same sex marriage. In relation to that particular issue, it is not a third way. It is difficult to see how this approach will lead to “a peaceful resolve” because it will still exclude those who affirm gay marriage—which is precisely where the lack of peace is centered.

The “inclusive” third way

In a blog post with the provocative title, “Yes, Al Mohler (and Tony Jones), There Is a Third Way,” Zach Hoag, who is identified as a United Methodist church worker in New England, positions himself over against what he terms the “fundamentalism” of being unable to see any third way (Zach Hoag blog). “The basic idea for both Al [a prominent Southern Baptist leader and opponent of gay marriage] and Tony [an emergent church leader, writer, and teacher who supports gay marriage] is that there’s no way for churches and denominations to avoid committing to a policy on gay marriage.”

The “third way” here is to subordinate theological ideology to “love, inclusion, and equality.” Hoag argues for “third way churches and denominations” to officially make room for “gay relationships and gay marriage” but to allow congregations to discern their own policies locally.

As I read him, Hoag is a bit unclear on whether a “third way denomination” can actually reject the affirmation of same-sex marriage and still qualify as “third way.” He seems to be saying that those who can’t support such marriages should have a place so long as they affirm LGBT Christians as “real Christians” and “practice inclusion and support civil rights.” But he also asserts that in a “third way” setting the key values are “love, inclusion, and equality.”

It’s difficult to see how in practice Hoag’s hope is different from what most of those who do affirm gay marriage (the “second way”) want. He insists on not compromising on inclusion and equality while also giving up the antagonism that characterizes fundamentalisms of both the right and the left.

It strikes me that he is mostly inventing this “fundamentalism of the left”—though since my own exposure to various Christians is limited I’m willing to grant that I could be wrong. His example of Tony Jones does not seem to work, though. I regularly read Jones’s blog and I don’t see this kind of “fundamentalism.” Hoag insists that “fundamentalists” of all persuasions must be “converted”—that is, give up the antagonism that is inherent in fundamentalism (both of the right and the left). I don’t see much antagonism in Jones’s writing, and I don’t see much antagonism among the inclusive folks I know in my Mennonite context (it is precisely the ability to act largely without antagonism that has made the Pink Menno movement so effective in recent years).

And I can’t see folks such as Al Mohler, who surely represents a large number of conservative Christians, accepting Hoag’s notion of a church that subordinates the theological convictions that underwrite their restrictive stance to “love, inclusion, and inequality.” It does appear that ultimately Hoag is arguing for an inclusive church that would embrace same-sex marriage, but trying to do it in a way that is respectful of those who disagree and tries not to be coercive toward them. That is, given his ecclesial context, perhaps he is hoping that the United Methodist Church can follow the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the United Church of Christ, and the United Presbyterian Church and become an inclusive denomination that allows individuals and congregations to disagree with the official stance of the denomination. But this seems exactly to be what someone like Tony Jones hopes for, too.

It’s just that Jones seems to believe (rightly, in my opinion) that those such as Al Mohler could never accept being part of such a denomination. That is, when it comes down to it, in the real world, one is either part of a church that affirms same-sex marriage or one that doesn’t. It really is difficult to see a “third way” here.

Another kind of “third way”?

Sympathetic to Jim Hightower’s sarcasm about being in the middle of the road, I’m not inclined to want to advocate for some kind of “third way.” I think it’s better to be upfront about our convictions and, on such a crucial issue, to advocate for the truth as we see it.

Part of the issue here, too, is a sense of how change actually happens on the issue of the inclusion of gay Christians. The gay Christian blogger at the site, Ford’s Words (Ford’s Words blog; as near as I can tell his name is David Ford), has written in support of a Third Way approach such as Zach Hoag’s, as I read it in part because he believes that it’s unhelpful to think of people’s views in either/or ways. He writes that a change of heart is not usually an event; it’s a process. Forcing people to take “sides” is likely to entrench traditionalists in their beliefs.

I want to respect Ford’s perceptions, but I do not share them. He seems to assume that this issue, like many other issues, is responsive to careful reasoning and rational calculation. I’ve been working at “reasoning” with people I disagree with for years. I even wrote a book with a colleague that contains our debate called Reasoning Together: A Conversation on HomosexualityThat book remains almost unprecedented among Christians of any stripe in this time of disputation. Its rarity seems to me to support my sense that this approach does not really work. There is something about this issue that inherently seems to foster polarization.

In my experience, it does seem to be the case that changes in perspective often aren’t actually the result of gradual processes so much as large steps, maybe taken in fits and starts. That is, change results from conversion more than persuasion.

If this is the case, perhaps it would be helpful to think of another kind of “third way” scenario. In his classic book on the way of nonviolence, Engaging the Powers (and also in the later, abridged version, The Powers That Be), Walter Wink writes at length about what he calls Jesus’s “third way.” But this kind of third way is not about finding a way for people to mute their differences (as both of the views I’ve summarized above seem to me to do). It’s rather about how to encourage a “conversion.” Wink’s version of Jesus’s third way is an alternative to “fight or flight” in the face of conflict. It’s to seek to change the mind of the opponent through nonviolent action.

I think in our current struggle, the relevance of Wink’s idea (which to some extent, at least, has been embodied by Soulforce) is to work at challenging the anti-LGTBQ status quo directly and honestly but with respect, compassion, and openness. Wink, following Jesus and also Gandhi, had great things to say about how all of us can learn from our opponents. Gandhi argued that the means matter more than the ends. His view was that we work toward truth with a sense of clarity of conviction but with an openness to adjust and learn and grow.



Amarah Shaye blog

Benjamin Moberg blog



7 thoughts on “Is there a “third way” regarding same-sex marriage and the churches?

  1. Ted, as usual, you provide a lot of good food for thought. It does seem as though “Third Way” doesn’t mean anything specific, other than whatever a given writer sees as a path between two alternatives.

    This statement is sticking with me: “That is, when it comes down to it, in the real world, one is either part of a church that affirms same-sex marriage or one that doesn’t.”

    On a congregational level, I think this is probably true, but at a broader scale (conference or denomination) this feels too binary to me. Would you assert the same thing if we substituted “divorce/remarriage” for “same-sex marriage”? Has MC USA “affirmed” divorce/remarriage? Or has it simply allowed a variety of responses (including some that are technically “at variance”)?

    I think there is space between the rigid restrictive stance of the Southern Baptist Convention and an official denominational affirmation of same-sex marriage. Isn’t it possible to allow for congregational variability on this matter? Don’t we have such variability on many other matters? (Young, unbaptized children in my congregation happily took part in communion last evening, taking the same elements as the rest of us. For example.)

    Sure, some on the “restrictive” side would not find that acceptable, but maybe some would. And some on the “inclusive” side would be unhappy that the church doesn’t “bless” same-sex marriages. But others would be happy that the church had finally stopped censuring congregations and pastors for being “fully convinced in their own minds” (when this eventually happens).

    Speaking of Al Mohler, it is surprising to see that you and he agree on this point (see my link above).

    1. Thanks, Dave, for the thoughtful response.

      Actually, I almost totally agree with you—except in your assumption that I’m advocating that denominations (as in MC-USA) must be fully embracing of same-sex marriage. I think I was a bit muddy on the distinction between denomination and congregation. This is partly because one of my main sources, Zach Hoag’s post, was muddy. But also it’s a complicated distinction that would have taken even more words in a post that already turned out a bit longer than I wanted.

      I’ve been advocating for years for a return to the GC polity of allowing a lot more of a congregational-centered discernment dynamic. I think, at least among Mennonites, that most others on the inclusive side would support this, too. So, to me the locus for change should be on the congregational level—allowing for a variety of approaches within the denomination.

      At the same time, from my perception, very few of what we could call the strict “1st way” folks seem willing to live in a denomination that allows “congregational variability.” Just minutes ago I noted the MWR article about three congregations leaving Virginia Conference presumably for precisely this reason.

      I really don’t think I do agree with Al Mohler—I’m just pointing out that the “third ways” as up to now articulated don’t seem to work, though I would be happy if one could. He seems to be committed to do whatever he can to make sure it can’t work.

      1. I’m glad to hear you don’t agree with Al Mohler about there being no possible third way. I’ve been thinking about this topic for about a week since I read the Amarah Shaye blog linked from Facebook. I guess I felt the need to vent a little after hearing one more Menno I respect critique the possibility of a “third way.”

        I agree that some “first way” folks will not be satisfied with a more congregational polity. But I am cautiously hopeful that others will. Otherwise, we might as well stop pretending to have a “denomination.”

        I see your article about Virginia Conference and raise you the article about MC Canada and its questions for discernment. 🙂 “Faith is not invalidated by our disagreement,” said MC Canada executive director Willard Metz­ger. “What if we define unity in a way that embraces diversity and disagreement?”

        What if we had leaders like Willard in MC USA? (He’s also way out front on climate change, unsurprisingly.)

      2. I think, Dave, what I am really arguing is that all we need is a “second way,” not a “second way” disguised as a “third way” in order to make it less threatening. If we (MC USA) had a truly congregational polity and leaders like Willard seems to be, I think we’d be well situated to move ahead.

        As I wrote a few months ago, I believe that Central District is the future of MC USA one way or another. Either we as a whole (minus the strict “first wayers” and strict “third wayers” [if there are any, which I doubt]) accept the kind of inclusive spirit of CDC (which certainly allows for congregations that are not affirming of same-sex marriage) or the only ones left in time will be those who have that kind of spirit—because they are not leaving even if everyone else does.

  2. An informative post, Ted. I believe your advocacy for a return to the GC polity of a more vibrant congregationalism is the best theological solution for Mennonites and other Anabaptist-types.

    Then, in the public sphere, rather than remain entangled in endless intramural church-talk, we can give our voice, time, energy and monetary gifts to organizations like the Human Rights Campaign which is very effective in the movement of political policy advocacy, change and justice for LGBTQ citizens and neighbors.

    I’m writing you this evening from my place in the left-leaning, artsy Village of Yellow Springs, Ohio. Here, my neighbors have placed their call for “a third way” on a locally produced bumper sticker. It reads, “Don’t like gay sex? Don’t have it.”

  3. Glad to see you address this, Ted. For all who want the denomination to stay together, this is what we should be talking about. And thank you, Dave, for pushing Ted to clarify his position. I too felt a tone in the leading post that suggested the search for a third way was a waste of time.

    Changes in polity will certainly need to be part of such a way. So will reaffirmation that the Bible place a primary value on heterosexual marriage as reflecting God’s primary way of building a just society. Without that, I don’t expect traditionally minded conferences will remain in the coalition.

    I am part of a Lancaster Mennonite Conference congregation and have been pleased to sense a spirit of confession among Conference leaders related to the use of statements and pronouncements to define our approach to sexual controversies. There is a new emphasis on engagement with people.

    So perhaps we can stay together if those advocating inclusion do not demand that the coalition abandon its historic teaching that Genesis 2 is the basic paradigm for organizing human society, but simply continue to insist that the Bible also has much more to say on the subject, some of it requiring inclusion.

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