How does Third Way, rooted in Romans 14-15, apply in the era of a Donald Trump presidency? Like every application of Third Way, this one depends on how we read the situation on the ground. In this case, what do we make of the words, policies and phenomena surrounding Donald Trump’s campaign and his unfolding tenure as President-Elect? First, some background thoughts.
NOT EVERY CONTROVERSY IS A DISPUTABLE MATTER IN EVERY CHURCH
In Romans 14, St. Paul identified two controversial issues as “disputable matters”: special days (likely including the moral necessity of Sabbath observance) and dietary matters (likely whether eating meat sacrificed to idols constitutes participation in idolatry). Paul wrote about other controversial matters without regarding them as “disputable.” For example, he regards head coverings for women in worship as controversial but not disputable (see 1 Corinthians). Women are to wear head coverings to respect the order of nature (“because of the angels”) and out of respect for catholicity (“this is the practice in all the churches.”) Today, most regard Paul’s teaching as culturally conditioned and don’t consider it binding. Still, some churches require head coverings for women in worship (as was the case in my Episcopal church growing up in the 1950’s).
Third Way was forged in the controversy over the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the life of the church. My proposal was simple: that the biblical and theological justification for regarding all same-gender sex as sinful is a legitimately disputable matter and that discrimination against same-gender couples is no longer justified on these grounds (not to mention pastoral and humanitarian concerns.) This was rejected by my denomination at the time, Vineyard USA. Since that time all Vineyard Churches in the United States are banned from performing gay weddings or ordaining pastors who are in same-gender marriages. Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship recently reaffirmed essentially the same policy. I disagreed with my former denomination’s decision on the grounds that it dismisses what I consider to be legitimate biblical exegesis, theological understanding, and especially the experience of LGBTQ people. But I agree with the principle that not all controversial issues are disputable in all settings. These decisions are made according to the polity of each denomination or local congregation.
THIRD WAY IS A PATH THROUGH CONTROVERSY, NOT AROUND IT
From its inception, the church has been wracked by controversies as the New Testament amply illustrates.The counsel of Romans 14-15 hasn’t precluded painful divisions. There is no historical evidence that the house churches of Rome maintained unity between their Gentile and Jewish factions. Perhaps the principles of Third Way (long neglected and rarely applied explicitly) can only be expected to slow, not prevent, divisions in the church. Apart from our longstanding tendency to rivalry and division, the unity that Paul sought to preserve was a “unity of the Spirit,” a term that implies there are other forms of unity that are not of the Spirit. This is consistent with the teaching of Jesus who promised, at times, division rather than a false peace.
In the light of the consensus against slavery that emerged after the 18th century, one is hard-pressed to imagine a unity of the Spirit that would have supported the rights of some Christians to own other human beings. The period when that new consensus was up for grabs was a necessarily turbulent one. One could reasonably assume that at least some of the institutional divisions precipitated by the controversy over slavery were Spirit-led.
Furthermore, the implications of Romans 14-15 in the situation addressed by Paul were not “practice-neutral.” The Roman churches couldn’t “split the difference” between excluding or including those who didn’t observe the sabbath or who ate meat sacrificed to idols in good conscience. Third Way wasn’t a compromise solution to the question of full inclusion. Paul did not rule, for example, that the non-observant could be members but not leaders. As an observant Jew himself, Paul may have had a deep appreciation for the convictions of the party he characterized as “the weak.” But he was not willing to impede the spread of the gospel among the Gentiles for their sake. He ruled against adopting the scruples of “the weak” as binding on the entire community while urging “the strong” not to regard the “the weak” with contempt.
THE ISSUES RAISED BY THE TRUMP PHENOMENON
The issues raised by a Trump presidency are quite different. They aren’t related to how congregations conduct their internal affairs, at least at the level of policy. It’s not likely that churches will be asked to check the documentation of immigrants, for example, or take a particular approach to providing restrooms for transgender people. The questions faced by church leaders have to do with how to respond to the leadership of President-Elect Trump in various areas. Be supportive? Assume that congregants have varying perspectives and keep the peace by avoiding the topic? Object and resist?
These questions are not insubstantial. Many in my own church circles are deeply alarmed and feel targeted by statements made during the campaign: women, immigrants, African Americans, sexual minorities, members of the media. Many report incidents of intimidation that seem linked to the Trump phenomenon. Many are justifiably alarmed by his close ties to white nationalism, his popularity with overtly racists groups, and the way he stirs the basest instincts of crowds at his rallies–suggesting that protestors deserve to be roughed up, urging the crowds to turn on the “dishonest” media present at the rallies (which they do.) The dynamics of scapegoating are not subtle.
Concerns of this sort are deeply tied to our faith. We serve a God who stands out among the gods as one who sides with the oppressed, the vulnerable and those targeted by the majority to resolve escalating tensions within communities (the scapegoat mechanism.) This is a God who unmasks the human tendency to unconsciously scapegoat others in order to achieve a temporary peace at the expense of a targeted group. If we understand God in these terms, we have a responsibility to object and resist when we see these dynamics unfolding.
THIRD WAY AND THE CHURCH’S PROPHETIC ROLE
If Jesus’s death and resurrection represents the unmasking of the scapegoat mechanism, if Jesus stands in solidarity with the victims of scapegoating then we cannot adopt a posture of neutrality when such forces are being stirred at a national scale. The church has a prophetic role and it means recognizing this phenomenon and objecting, just as Jesus prevented the crowd forming around the woman accused of adultery from throwing the first of what would have been an avalanche of stones. We are all called to object when we see this happening, whether or not our doing so upsets others.
My purpose in this post is not to make the case for such a response but to simply suggest that such a response is not prohibited by faithfulness to the principles articulated in Romans 14-15. Third Way churches cannot abandon their prophetic call. No doubt, Christians in various settings will make different discernments about how the Spirit is leading. But that doesn’t mean we’re off the hook for seeking his leading, and responding as best we can with the light that we are given.
Third Way churches can and should, in my view, stand up for the equality of women, the rights of minorities, and for the ongoing work of the Spirit to unmask our own tendency to participate (actively or passively) in scapegoating mobs. We’re called to walk in the path of the Sermon on the Mount as a prophetic alternative.
Paul’s letter to the Romans (and chapters 14-15, in particular) are tied directly to the Sermon on the Mount. Both are attempting to deal with the age-old problem of rivalry. Rivalry leads to multiplying tensions in our communities and pressure to resort to scapegoating as a means to temporarily resolve the tensions of the many at the expense of the few. In Romans 14-15 Paul is dealing with the rivalries that have deep roots in the animosity between Jew and Gentile and their complicated manifestation in the house churches. This is why he echoes two themes from the Sermon on the Mount: don’t judge (his admonition to “the weak” often analogous to modern day conservatives) and don’t show contempt (his admonition to “the strong,” often analogous to modern day liberals.) For those who us who feel called to speak out against and resist some of the dynamics unleashed in the recent Presidential campaign, I think this means renouncing the natural human tendency to regard those with whom we disagree with contempt. That means we can’t assume the best about our own motives while assuming the worst about the motives of others.
Contempt, I think, can be distinguished from anger. Married couples can survive periods of angry disagreement, but contempt is the strongest indication of impending divorce, according to the research of the Gottman institute. Contempt is often a passive-aggressive form of anger and one that simply dismisses the other. Contempt is a sin against the human dignity of others. It’s possible to be in conflict with others without resorting to contempt. In committed relationships, it’s important to be able to object to what others are doing, sometimes with anger. Compared to the dismissive nature of contempt, anger can be a way of taking the other seriously, saying, in effect, “You are a person with agency, and what you do has a big impact on me. This hurts, please stop.”
If leaders feel a need (as I have) to speak out against policies and perspectives advocated by Donald Trump, it’s important to avoid contempt, including toward those who voted for the President-Elect. When Hilary Clinton used her now infamous, “basket of deplorables” language to characterize a large segment of Trump supporters, she was trafficking in the language of contempt. We all do it. When commentators, columnists, and newscasters (people with college degrees living in cities with a high proportion of college educated people) repeated the mantra that Clinton had the support of college- educated women while Trump was backed by those without college degrees, many Trump supporters heard echoes of a longstanding elite contempt for those with less formal education.
There is a liberal group-think that harbors contempt toward whole sectors of the population that disproportionately voted for Trump.This just fuels the rivalry that makes communities more vulnerable to the largely unconscious dynamics of scapegoating in the first place.
We can assume that reasonable adults will weigh the competing values at stake in every election differently and come up with different decisions about who to vote for. But that doesn’t mean that we’re called to remain neutral when we see members of the media being openly scapegoated in crowds, the stirring of discrimination against Muslims and other groups, dog-whistling to avowed racists and white nationalists, etc.
Third Way is a check against our natural tendency to separate when we disagree, but it’s not an exemption from the human condition, still less from the call to discipleship. St. Paul himself contributed to rising tensions in the Christian community over the standing of its Gentile members. The Paul who wrote the letter to the Romans also wrote the letter to the churches of Galatia. We are called to guard the unity of the Spirit and bear witness to the prophetic mission of the gospel in the world.