The “Third Way” is a new approach to being together in a faith community centered around Jesus. Forged in the LGBT controversy, it applies to any issue over which Christians agree to disagree. The term was coined by Ken Wilson, author of A Letter to My Congregation.
What is it?
Third Way is drawn from the counsel of Paul to the church in Rome (Romans 14-15). It recognizes that we can enjoy a deep unity in the Spirit, indeed have an obligation to guard this unity given, despite having severe disagreements over important moral questions. In other words, our unity in the Spirit transcends our shared moral consensus.
While the exact issues Paul addressed in Rome are not clear, many scholars, including N.T. Wright, James Dunn, and others contend that the disputed moral question were not trivial in their time. Likely possibilities include whether Christians could eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols, or whether Sabbath observance was obligatory (first and fourth commandment issues respectively.)
Paul regarded these questions as “disputable matters” and enjoined the members of the church to “agree to disagree” over such matters.
He called for members of the church to fully accept each other in Christ, even if some were regarded as gravely mistaken in their beliefs or practices in the disputed matters.
He insisted that they refrain from judging each other, trusting in the Risen Lord to judge correctly in due time.
He urged them to maintain their respective convictions, honoring those who had differing ones so long as they were sincerely seeking to please the Lord.
The church often practices Third Way (implicitly if not explicitly) after a controversy has run its course. Examples include whether and when remarriage after divorce is accepted, or whether killing in war is the moral equivalent of murder, or whether the biblical injunctions against usury apply to charging interest on loans. These issues are not trivial. They are not matters of indifference. In an earlier time and place, they were church rending controversies.
But in his letter to the Romans, Paul addressed the church in the throes of controversy over what were then regarded as first order moral concerns. The Third Way is not just for yesterday’s controversies, but today’s.
How does it apply to LGBT?
Which brings us to our own situation as we grapple with the question of how to regard Christians in same sex relationships bound together by a covenant made before God. Are such couples and those seeking to enter such committed relationships to be accepted and received in the same way that opposite gendered couples are accepted and received?
A Third Way approach says, yes. It is not a “middle way” in which the church attempts to “split the difference” on exclusion—allowing gay members, for example, but disqualifying them from positions of leadership (if only ordination.) Various attempts at a middle way, however “lenient” are grounded in the conviction that faithful Christians may not disagree over this question: the Scripture is absolutely clear and differing readings or interpretations are not legitimate.
Hence, Third Way is itself controversial inasmuch as it asserts that the question is indeed disputable. It requires careful examination of Scripture, of the tradition of the church and its impact, and of the experience of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgendered people. It is not a way to avoid the controversy but to be faithful to God through the controversy. The Third Way requires discernment, decision, and commitment to implement. And sometimes it exacts a cost to implement.
While Third Way is fully inclusive with respect to same sex couples, it is distinguished from the practice commonly referred to as “open and affirming.” While the language of affirmation in this context is an attempt to express love and concern for same sex couples, it carries with it some (perhaps unintended) baggage. The language of affirmation implies that as Christians we are called to extend moral approval to each other. In fact, the gospel transcends moral approval as the basis for acceptance, belonging, or unity in the Spirit. As people following the way of Jesus we are not called to give, demand or receive moral approval from each other. We don’t need to because we are in Christ, who receives the approval of the Father.
The advantages of Third Way are these: 1. It requires a full embrace of the gospel truth that our unity in Christ is contingent on the faithfulness of Jesus Christ alone and nothing else. 2. It requires exacting discipleship to Jesus who calls his followers to refrain from judging each other—fully abandoning the original sin of seeking to be like God through pursuing the knowledge of good and evil. It may exact the cost of identifying with a stigmatized group. 3. It provides witness to a polarized world of the power of Jesus to unify those who would otherwise divide over the issue. 4. It provides hope that humans can find a way to embrace truth without violating love through constant and recurring division over disputed matters—which show no sign of resolving so long as we “see through a glass darkly.”