Some Thoughts For my Fellow Third Way Allies

An answer to a perennial question

“It is the work of the oppressed to resist oppression, it is the work of the oppressor to dismantle oppression”

This is a paraphrase of a comment I ran into the other day at a local SURJ (Standing Up for Racial Justice) meeting. For context, we were (and are) a group of white folk working to support social justice organizations and movements led by people of color, and at the time we were talking about why we exist the way we do because, lets face it, it is weird to be an anti-racism organization with overwhelmingly white membership. Now the fact of the matter is that SURJ emerged as a result of a lot of white folk who had become aware of racial injustice in this country asking people of color what they could do to help. One of the most common answers was (and is) that we could help to educate other privileged folks. Hence SURJ, an organization dedicated to “organizing White people for racial justice”.

This gets at the heart of a perennial question for would-be allies: “how can I be responsible with the privilege I have?” I have written in another post about some of the answers I think the Bible provides to that question, but this comment I ran into at our meeting the other day has me thinking about it again. It isn’t a simple question after all, and as someone who considers myself an ally – a feminist ally, an LGBTQ+ ally, a ally to people of color, among other things – and an imperfect ally at that, I hope that I will be forever thinking about and refining my thoughts and actions on this question.  So here’s the quote again:

“It is the work of the oppressed to resist oppression, it is the work of the oppressor to dismantle oppression”

My job as Mr. Privilege

I am a middle class, college educated, straight, white, cisgender, American, Protestant male. I am practically oozing with privilege. I live in a society and civilization which was literally built to serve people who are like me. I know this. It means, among other things, that my voice will automatically be amplified in most contexts, that my opinion is far less likely to be questioned on the basis of who I am, that I am able to glide through my daily life without worrying about whether I will be safe when engaging in normal, healthy human behavior like holding my spouse’s hand in public, shopping, walking down the street, or worshiping with my religious community. It means that I have the option to ignore just about every oppressive system and prejudiced person in my society without any fear of personal consequences. And as a Third Way follower of Jesus, it means that I cannot give in to the temptation to do just that.

Where does the Third Way come into it?

Probably the most recognizable difference between a Third Way approach and the more typical “Open and Affirming” approach to sexuality and the Church is the Third Way’s openness to the presence of non-affirming Christians within the community. This is both a tremendous strength and serious challenge for Third Way communities. It means that Third Way communities, while demanding full participation for LGBTQ+ individuals in the full life of the church, risk the possibility of having their spaces (physical churches, small group homes, community gatherings, online and social media spaces etc…) become places where non-affirming Christians (in Romans 14 parlance “the weak”) engage in conversation and behavior which is less than perfectly safe for the LGBTQ+ folk who have already been attacked, harmed, and marginalized by the greater Western church. At the end of the day, for all of its value, diversity is less safe than homogeneity.

In this context, it is the special responsibility of Allies to stand up for our LGBTQ+ members and, when called upon, to engage positively, lovingly, educationally, and firmly with our non-affirming members when they (intentionally sure, but also and more frequently unintentionally) engage in speech or behavior which threatens the inclusion and welcome of LGBTQ+ folk. This does not mean that LGBTQ+ folk should not engage with non-affirming members around contentious and debatable topics, that is up to them. They are living in the environment that a historically homophobic, transphobic church has created and their work in this environment is varied, diverse, and subject to the leading of the Holy Spirit. What they do in that context is a conversation that they get to have among themselves, with the other gifted and brilliant LGBTQ+ leaders in the church, with those they trust within strong community, and, most critically, with the Holy Spirit. Our work as privileged members of the Body of Christ is to engage in the messy, complicated, process of dismantling the systems (whether structural, mental, or theological) which have been used for oppression.

My intention is not to say that LGBTQ+ folk cannot, or should not, engage in whatever way seems best to the Spirit and to themselves, it is to suggest that, as privileged people it is our responsibility to engage in the task of dismantling the systems and structures which give us that privilege.

This is especially vital in Third Way communities because it is in Third Way communities that these situations are most likely to arise. We will all get it wrong sometimes, and a community dedicated to following Jesus and to the unity of His Body along a Romans 14 model must be a community of grace, truth, and humility for the times we get it wrong. We who are allies must be engaged in the work of dismantling the systems which keep us apart. Remember that the divisions of the church in Rome were eventually dissolved, they are not the specific issues that the modern church wrestles with. So there is every reason to hope that this will not always be an issue which divides the church, but that will only happen if those of us who could ignore oppression choose instead to stand on the side of the marginalized.

A call for input

All of this is a statement of how I see myself as an ally. And as such I want to own the fact that my privilege numbs me to jagged edges of this work. So I would be incredibly grateful for input from other allies and from the LGBTQ+ members of the Third Way community. What have I missed? What message do you think the Third Way ought to have for allies as we move forward together?

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4 thoughts on “Some Thoughts For my Fellow Third Way Allies

  1. Brown KINNARD says:

    Thanks for alerting me to SURJ and for your emphasis on oppressors dismantling oppressive structures. I too am a privileged white male with a conscience about these things.

    What I think you and other Third Way people have missed is proper exegesis of Romans 14 and 15. There the strong are told to make allowance for the weak, even to the point of not doing anything that would make the weak stumble.

    But in the Third Way it is the weak (traditional straight believers) who are asked to make allowance for the strong (gay believers). Why? Because for so long the now strong gay believers were the weak who had all kinds of injustices visited on them. Notice that a justice dimension has entered that is not in Rom. 14 and 15. There the appeal is not to justice but to honoring each one’s relationship with the Lord and building up the community.

    Your post is permeated with the theme of justice for the oppressed, certainly a Jesus theme, but not a theme of Romans 14 and 15.

    Justin Lee wrote his book Torn about the full inclusion of gays in the church. He based it on scripture but not on Romans 14 and 15.

    • Bill Hoard says:

      Thanks for the reply and your thoughts. I am glad I could draw your attention to SURJ, they are a pretty great organization. So far as I can tell, your comment comes down to two particular objections: The Third Way Hermeneutic/Exegesis of Romans 14 and 15, and the introduction of Justice as a theme within those passages. I’m sorry you don’t find a Third Way exegesis of Romans 14 and 15 compelling. I certainly do. We have already written a fair amount about the Third Way understanding of Romans 14 and 15 and why its implications for the contemporary church are that the weak should not prevent LGBTQ+ folk from full inclusion and participation in the church while the strong are not to look down on, or disdain the weak. I would encourage you to go check out my piece more directly on the weak and the strong.
      In terms of my understanding of the relationship of justice and Romans 14 and 15 I think you are touching on a really critical misunderstanding which I have found is unfortunately common in the modern church. Specifically, I think you may be applying a modern and western understanding of “Justice” to the Bible when you say that there are no themes of Justice in Romans 14 and 15. In fact, the word that is translated “justice” in the English NT is the Greek word “dikaiosune” which is also the word which is translated as “righteousness”. In fact the word has crossover meaning with the more famous (in Jewish and Christian circles) term “Shalom”. I think the best definition of the term might be “that state of affairs where all is well, and all is well, and all manner of things is well”. Concepts like equality, fairness, and correction, may play a part in that but our contemporary usage of “justice” falls short of the full picture. So then given that one of Paul’s major objectives in the letter to the Romans (you might find NT Wright really helpful on this and on dikaiosune in general) is the “justice” among believers (in that specific instance between Jewish and Gentile followers of “the Way”), I think Justice is very much at the forefront in Romans 14 and 15 where Paul is laying out the conditions, the state of affairs, wherein all are welcome and none are judged by the other. Hopefully this helps in clarifying where/how I, at least, see justice not as absent from Romans 14 and 15, but as central. Paul is showing the church how to achieve the justice he has already spend much of the book linking to the Gospel and, I think, the Third Way is that way.

  2. Brown KINNARD says:

    Bill, even if you do find the justice theme in Rom. 14 and 15 there is yet another theme beginning in Rom. 14:13, the theme of relinquishment of rights.

    Do Third Way people ever talk about believing gays (the strong) relinquishing rights out of consideration for traditional straights (the weak)? Correct me if I’m wrong, but my impression is that the Third Way only asks both sides not to judge each other and lets it go at that. Agree to disagree.

    This is fine as far as the first part of Romans 14. But beginning in Romans 14:13 Paul begins to instruct the strong to do more than just stop judging. They are to relinquish rights so as not to cause the weak to stumble.

    Clearly Third Way people will not ask all believing gays to relinquish the right of sexual expression for the sake of traditional believers. That is why I believe you need to move away from Romans 14 and 15 on gay sex. Romans 14 and 15 will work for some other quarrels over opinions, but not for gay sex.

    • Bill Hoard says:

      I think that maybe the place we are getting hung up here actually has to do with how the principles of Romans 14 are applied where the situations differ (as all situations must). Remember that the specific issue Paul is addressing in Romans 14 is eating meat sacrificed to idols, where Third Way applies the principle behind his commands to same-sex sexual intimacy among followers of Jesus. Of course the application of Biblical principles to modern life is one of the basic jobs of teachers and pastors within the church, and one important aspect of that is working out how the principle applies under different situations.
      In this case, I think that a really vital difference is that the eating Paul is talking about when he tells the strong to give up their rights, is public and communal eating. A meal is eaten together and it would be ungracious to have as the main course, something one’s guests could not eat without violating conscience. We get some of this today when meat eating folks invite vegetarians or those with special dietary needs over for dinner. It would be the height of ungraciousnes not to provide a meatless option in that circumstance. However, I don’t think this applies directly to same-sex intimacy between Jesus Followers, since marital sex is not an open practice in this context. That is to say, we do not invite our Christian friends over for a round of group sex. I would suggest to you that an attempt at directly applying the rights-denying language of Romans 14 to same-sex couples in the Church would be the statement that same-sex couples should not have same-sex sex with guests in their home who are, themselves, not convinced that God blesses same-sex sexual intimacy. In contrast, since sex is something married couples have in private, and Paul is clear that the strong have freedom in private, there is no Romans 14 prohibition of same-sex couples being intimate with one another when they are in a Third Way community.

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