Church Renewal, CRCNA and Synod
Third Way? Meh
May 24, 2023
8 comments 1639 views
When I read here on the RJ blog about “Better Together: A Third Way,” an organized effort to hold together the Christian Reformed Church, my heart said “Bless you.” My head said, “Nope!”
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.
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For those who may be interested - Better Together - has published a more detailed explanation of the aim of our effort. If you'd like to hear a bit of a response to Steve's critique you're welcome to check it out:
Thanks for the response Nate. I particularly appreciated this paragraph: "We understand that others may be cynical, pessimistic, jaded, realistic. And perhaps one day we will be, too. But today is not that day. Today we are hopeful. Today we are optimistic. Today we are naïve. Today we are unabashedly unrealistic! Today we declare that our disagreement does not invalidate our unity, but instead offers us an opportunity to demonstrate it."
This has been an ongoing discussion on the Abide Project. After 50 years of debate and discussion along with example after example of those who have forged this path ahead of us, Pastor Andy Sytsma offers some biblical and pastoral insights in his article published already back in February entitled: "A Third Way or Better Way?"
Pastor Aaron Vriesman has taken a deeper dive into specific denominations that have attempted a so-called centrist position. Here is his article discussing the United Methodist Church:
I will add that Pastor Aaron Vriesman also wrote a while ago on this question in The Banner. I have yet to see anyone write a compelling counterpoint to Pastor Aaron's observations regarding the logical conclusions of the opposing views and their absolute incompatibility.
LGBTQ-Incompatible Means Gracious Separation is the Church’s Best Option | The Banner
I'll take the opportunity to also link to a series I wrote on The Network that takes a deeper dive into the call for a Third Way.
Introductory post: Thinking About a ‘Third Way’ – Starting With Agreement | CRC Network (crcna.org)
Conclusory post, with links to each previous post in the series: Thinking About a ‘Third Way’ – Conclusion | CRC Network (crcna.org)
As I read this post and the one from Christina Brinks Rea on the Better Together blog, I am more thankful for the hopeful and grace-filled posture in the latter. I can understand and have experienced feeling cynical about any kind of attempt at unity, especially since the cultural conflicts in our denomination are mirrored so completely in the broader political sphere. We are so good at staying divided! How could we come together now? What's more, how can we be "successful" at what we do if we can't decide what "success" really means to us?
Yet, the final statements of the post really hit home. I recently heard the same message in a January Series talk about climate activism (an entirely different subject but also controversial): we are not called to be successful, but we are called to be faithful. I believe God is calling us to put down our weapons and get into the messy middle of disagreement. If we fight viciously until the war is over because the only people remaining in our community all agree on everything, have we succeeded in following our call? Alternatively, if we earnestly and generously engage with others, offering grace and space to each "team" and deliberately working towards coming together in the love of Christ and the power of the Spirit, and in the end we still end up going our separate ways, have we failed?
I could never claim to have certainty about what will happen or how this will all turn out in the end, except to be certain that I have way more questions than answers. But once again, I believe God never calls us to be certain about the road ahead, but rather asks that we remain faithful to him as we walk in it.
Thank you for your thoughts, Andi. I think you're spot on about the call to be faithful (to the call for unity) even with small odds of success. Better Together is attempting to do the faithful "next right thing."
Steve: it's hard to argue with your analysis; our current culture and systems do not favor the moderates. (Anyone for ranked-choice voting?!) I also think you make a good point about third ways being done at the congregational level all the time on lots of issues. (To get anything done, local leaders need to be consensus-builders). However, as a friend pointed out, the timing of your article is unfortunate; some of us are still praying for a miracle.
I'd urge delegates not to throw in the towel on the good things we've done together over the years (Calvin College, Calvin Seminary, World Renew, Resonate, to name a few gems almost certain to be diminished if we split). Why not give it one more year, perhaps with a diverse team that takes a hard look at the issue of confessional status?
Also, not being a poetry buff, I had to look up the context of the line "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold," (which certainly feels accurate on many fronts). I found the basics here: The Second Coming (poem) - Wikipedia I see other provocative lines, one being: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." Alas, the third way can seem to lack conviction because we're a diverse bunch. Or perhaps we have conviction of another sort, a sense for orthopraxis more than orthodoxy, and perhaps less guile than most, if I dare claim such a thing? Without Guile | CRC Network (crcna.org)
As Nate and Andi point out in prior comments, we see the next right, faithful thing being to ASK for a third way. Maybe like a couple on the way to a divorce, we can all agree to see a counselor; we have a good one who wants to breath his peace into our fervid hearts and minds.
Just for the record: two years ago the Presbyterian Church of Canada voted to allow two interpretations of marriage, and so far there has been no split. Some families have left and some families have joined.
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