I first encountered third way arguments in the work of Latin American liberation theologians in the 1980s. They contended that a third way — those opting for nonviolence, for not siding with Marxist revolutionaries — was essentially siding with the status quo, with the dictators and death squads. And of course, not siding with the poor, the victims, and the oppressed.
I doubt there is a single, one-size-fits-all answer about third ways in general. In other words, what you thought about Latin America in the 1980s may not be especially illuminating for the CRC in 2023. And even if you think you have a crystal clear understanding of Jesus and zealots and Romans and collaborators in first century Palestine, I’m not sure that gives you simple directions for today’s debates about human sexuality in American Protestantism.
I sympathize with those in the Christian Reformed Church, trying to find that tenuous and tiny common ground, a Shangri-La where differences about LGBTQ+ inclusion are not reason for dividing a denomination. Additionally I’m sure there are all sorts of nuances and details about the situation in the CRC of which I am blissfully unaware. While I’m not entirely certain if I wish them success, I’m far more certain that they won’t find it.
In the time and place we find ourselves, I simply believe that hoping and working for a third way is profoundly tone deaf. Is there, they ask, a better way than arguing, splitting, and recrimination. Of course there is. Can we, at this moment, find that way and go there? No.
If, however, there can be an even somewhat viable third way, I believe it will be in congregations, not denominations. I’ve written before how much I respect and appreciate the folks who are not entirely on board with our congregation’s Welcome Statement, but nonetheless have stayed with us. I am grateful for their commitment to our congregation as more than only a Welcome Statement. I honor their refusal to be pushed into picking a side, seeing it as a win/lose proposition. I admire their valuing of relationships over opinions. I am glad for their efforts to stand against the balkanization of today’s American church.
While we never used the term “third way,” essentially that’s what our congregation was for many years. People knew that the pastors were open and affirming, that there were LGBTQ+ members, even office holders, but they weren’t fully out. It was more of an open secret.
Why was anything more necessary? No LGBTQ+ person had ever been turned away. Many people thought this was enough. And when we moved to being fully, publicly, and gladly open and affirming, nearly all those people departed.
It turns out, it wasn’t enough.
If you believe that a moderate tone — no gay-bashing but no open affirmation of LGBTQ+ people — will somehow be received as a friendly gesture by LGBTQ+ people, you are sorely mistaken. You might even be accused of false advertising, acting friendly when in fact you are not. You can wish for a case of “those who are not against me, are for me.” But we live in a time when “those who are not for me, are against me.”
Maybe the third way can be a tepid, temporary, and only mildly inadequate response on a congregational level. It is unrealistic and hopeless on a denominational level. I say that partly because of my experience and understanding of the wider church. I say it even more because of our current cultural context.
In the church, we may talk admiringly about being counter-cultural and a faithful witness, living the future today, and other beautiful dreams and inspiring mottoes. But in today’s America, there is no appetite, no vision, no group with any size or sway — inside the church or outside — calling for or modeling a realistic third way.
I use that word “realistic” cautiously, even regretfully. The way of Jesus is often not very realistic. But realism is what wins on Synod floors as much as Senate floors. Advocates of a third way will be outnumbered and outmaneuvered — especially in our polarized and combative condition.
Third way-ism reminds me of the fatigued and unfair “both-sides-ism” in our political debates — those who try to maintain the moral equivalence of both sides in the culture wars. “No one is righteous” — true enough. But there is clearly a relative better and worse.
In the run-up to one of the many “crucial” Reformed Church General Synods (so many, I can’t recall which one!) I reached out to colleagues that I called “courageous conservatives.” I knew we disagreed on affirming LGBTQ+ people. I tried to persuade them that this didn’t have to be a denomination-splitting disagreement, nor was it acceptable to bend our rules and trample our structures to achieve their goals. My meager efforts were nowhere as organized or visible as the CRC’s “Better Together.” Still, I can report that mainly I was ignored. I received no positive responses and more than a few scornful replies filled with phrases like “biblical principles” and “unbending integrity.”
One might have supposed that after watching the Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and others split over issues of sexuality, the RCA would have found a different way. But, no. Will the CRC now break this pattern and augur a new day dawning? No. As Yeats wrote a little over a century ago, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
I don’t like being the bearer of bad news, raining on someone’s noble parade, sticking my nose into another denomination’s business or declaring that there is no hope — at least not at this time and on this topic. Sadly though, all of it is true.